Saturday, October 10, 2009

"TxDOT needs to come up with a real plan that actually pays for these projects we know we need... and the legislative leadership needs to support it."

Expanding state's 'main street' of I-35 will take $2.2 billion

TxDOT has committed just 14 percent of funding, but money from Proposition 12 could help close gap for expansion, improvement of I-35.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

State transportation officials, even as they were declaring this week that plans to build a tollway twin to Interstate 35 had died, said it will take about $2.2 billion to "complete" Interstate 35 from San Antonio to north of Hillsboro.

Trouble is, only $278 million is currently committed to completing the expansion of what was a four-lane freeway to six lanes, along with building 18 bridges and making other frontage lane, ramp and interchange improvements, the Texas Department of Transportation said.

The public and the Legislature have made it clear that the toll option is off the table for I-35.

"I don't think there's any appetite on the (Texas Transportation) Commission to toll those added lanes," said Ted Houghton, an El Paso businessman appointed to TxDOT's governing body in 2003. During the thick of the political fight over tollways the past few years, Houghton had been solidly behind just about any turnpike approach. No longer.

So, without tolling new lanes, where would the money come from?

"TxDOT needs to come up with a real plan that actually pays for these projects we know we need — and the legislative leadership needs to support it," said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "And that plan, as we've seen, cannot be based around short-sighted deals that sell our infrastructure to private corporations. We know Texans won't support such a plan — nor should they."

Houghton said some of the money could come from Proposition 12 funds. He was referring to a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2007 that will allow TxDOT to borrow up to $5 billion and pay it back with money from general state revenue rather than the agency's main funding source, motor fuels taxes.

The 2009 Legislature released the first $2.85 billion of that, $1 billion for the "state infrastructure bank" (from which TxDOT lends money for transportation projects) and the rest for TxDOT to spend on road work.

The Transportation Commission is still mulling over how to spend that stash.

It has heard from legislators who advocate spending it on rural projects, on urban projects, on new construction and on maintenance. The bottom line is that while I-35 from San Antonio to Hillsboro could get a large chunk of Proposition 12 money, conventional wisdom suggests that it will be spread around Texas.

Which means the 50 or so projects on TxDOT's I-35 to-do list could take awhile.

The road is already six lanes from San Antonio through Austin and north to the Williamson-Bell county line, the segment north of Georgetown having been completed in 2003. TxDOT envisions spending only $167 million in that stretch for bridges and interchanges in Hays and Bexar counties. The congestion through Austin would go unaddressed for now.

The rest of the money would be used in the 100 or so miles from near Salado to the fork where I-35W heads to Fort Worth and I-35E strikes out for Dallas. That section is still mostly four lanes, with six-lane stretches between Belton and Temple, through Waco and in the last few miles before the split north of Hillsboro.

Three expansion projects are under way — one near Salado, a second south of Waco and a third south of Hillsboro — and money is committed for three more expansion projects that would commence next year in Bell and Hill counties, along with some bridge and frontage roads projects at various spots along I-35.

The overwhelming amount of the work, including almost 60 miles of four-lane I-35, remains unfunded for now.

"It's the main street of Texas," Houghton said. "We need to fix it.", 445-3698

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